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Thailand Considers Ways to Deal with Possible Southern Muslim Insurgency - 2004-02-25

Thailand has been battling an upsurge of attacks against government officials and installations in its mostly Muslim south - raising concerns about a possible revival of a separatist insurgency by Muslim rebels.

It has been more than a month since violence flared up in southern Thailand. Residents and officials are on edge. Deputy Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh has come from Bangkok, 1,200 kilometers away, to meet with 200 local leaders in Pattani Province.

"Today the situation has changed," he said. "The problem is worse. It has never been like this before."

In the past two months, attacks in the predominantly Muslim provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have killed more than 40 policemen, civil servants, Muslim leaders and Buddhist monks. The unrest intensified after gunmen, in an unprecedented incident, raided an Army base, seizing 400 arms and killing four soldiers.

Martial law is in force and several thousand troops have been sent to capture the assailants, but their methods have angered local residents who say their rights frequently are violated.

A local businessman, a Buddhist who has lived here for 50 years, explains that Muslims, who make up 80 percent of the population in the region, have a different culture from Buddhists who predominate in the rest of Thailand.

"The government has to understand and approach the problem in the right way," he said. "The group that is causing the problem wants to make sure the people here do not trust the government."

The southern region has long experienced higher crime rates than the country as a whole, due in part to smuggling across the nearby border with Malaysia, but also due to a history of alienation and resistance.

Islam came to this part of Thailand hundreds of years ago, brought by traders from Indonesia and South Asia. Historically, there were seven Muslim sultanates. They came under the influence of the kingdom of Siam -today's Thailand - in the 1700s and, despite several rebellions in the 18th century, were formally annexed by Bangkok in 1902.

According to local lore, the British colonial authorities in neighboring Malay during World War II promised independence to southern leaders if they resisted the Japanese military presence in Thailand. However, that promise was never fulfilled. And southern Thailand watched with some envy as the Malay regions became semi-autonomous states when Kuala Lumpur achieved independence in 1957.

The first major separatist group, the Pattani United Liberation Organization - or PULO - appeared in the late 1960s. It launched a low-grade guerrilla war against the Thai government, which at the time, was also fighting a communist insurgency.

Following the end of the Vietnam War, several other separatist groups emerged. The Thai military dictatorship in power at the time sought to suppress them by force.

The president of the Muslim Council of Narathiwat Province, Abdurahman Abdu Samad, says the years of repression left deep suspicions between Muslims and the authorities.

"When things happen in this area, usually the focus is to our Muslim people first, teachers, and our Muslim brothers first, not the other side," said Mr. Samad.

In the late 1980s, the Thai government adopted a new policy toward the south. It offered amnesty to the rebels and hundreds of them laid down their arms.

The government built schools, hospitals and roads to promote development and integrate southerners into Thai society. And it established a regional authority, with the power to dismiss corrupt officials and to handle complaints by local residents.

Professor Perayot Rahimullah of Prince of Songkla University in Pattani says political liberalization in the 1990s also eased feelings of alienation.

"Since 1993, '94, [there is] more democracy," said Professor Rahimullah. "Some Muslim brothers became MPs [members of parliament], become a minister in the Thai government."

During the 1990s, the number of violent incidents declined.

After the election of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra three years ago, the government decided to decentralize power and give more authority to local governments.

In 2002, the government dissolved the southern regional authority. It decided that violence in the region was mainly criminal and should be handled by police. Consequently, it removed the army anti-insurgency unit and disbanded a joint police-military task force that had coordinated law enforcement in the region.

The attacks began to gain in intensity soon afterwards.

Some officials say small cells have emerged that dislike the central government and advocate local Malay ethnicity. These cells may be trying to revive the separatist movement.

Many local leaders disagree. A senior Muslim leader in Yala Province, Nimu Makaje, says rather that a few individuals are trying to create a climate of fear and instability in order to further their own ends.

"Mischievous people are trying to create conditions to draw the attention of people and the news media," he said.

Local leaders believe the violence is due mainly to conflicts among local groups that benefit from keeping the region isolated.

Whatever the causes, the southern leaders agree that a heavy-handed response by the Thai government will do more harm than good. It will hinder education and development. And it could swell the ranks of separatist sympathizers, which may be a primary goal of the assailants.